Making a Difference
Fecund Enjoyment calculated. This would require patience and subtlety. The prey was approaching, but it was either doing it with great caution or else its technology was primitive. Objective velocity was barely eight to the third times C - certainly low enough to imply the latter, but perhaps not. Fecund's sensors were having some difficulty refining the data. That hyperdrive was stealthed, to some extent, though the ship seemed to be unarmed. But the general conformation… well.
A high-gravity field was being used, yet the proportions of the hull compared to the polarity of the field suggested a life-form that was taller than it was wide. The two shouldn't go together, but the galaxy was full of odd things. She consulted her records.
Ah, that explained it. It was one of the endoskeletal forms, for sure. Such a combination was associated with them. They were only occasionally encountered, though - they had such difficulty climbing out of the gravity wells in which they had evolved, after all. To the Yradrinic, who had left gravity wells far, far behind them, those species endowed with endoskeletons were a minority group much less important than the mollusks. Fecund had known mollusks who appreciated electrolysis-art and subscribed to waterscent concerts and collected antique microprocessors. Civilised shellfish who'd discoursed to her of philosophy and science. Briefly, before she'd eaten them.
She wondered what this species would taste like. Nasty, probably, and it would have splintery hard parts inside. Still, no harm in trying one out, before resigning herself to using the others only as slaves and pain-pets. Who knows? Perhaps she had discovered a delicacy, one that would make her name known across the whole of the Webs. She clashed her mandibles at the thought and prepped the targeting systems.
The prospect was exciting. While the weapon systems were attempting to acquire the target, she defrosted a husband in anticipatory celebration. But the systems could not seem to perform their function. The target ship kept avoiding acquisition and the missiles would not fire. The husband was eager enough, certainly, rolling around her feet and trying to climb up to her palps, but she found his antics simply irritating in the face of the failure of her weaponry to do her will, and she wound up by simply eating him instead of, rather than as well as.
Annoyed, she took over personal supervision of the system, but the signals continued to blur and shimmer, defying close resolution. She opened the parameters, and the computer finally resolved a target volume that was certain to contain the alien. The problem was that the volume was greater than the guaranteed-kill space of a full salvo of her own missiles.
What to do? Fecund contemplated a not-unfamiliar situation. It was of course axiomatic that the weapons and sensors of the Yradrinic were superior to any others that could possibly exist. However, some prey-species were quite cunning, as this one appeared to be. It might escape, if it had even a modest ECM capability, for it could hardly fail to spot the missile separations, given the accelerations involved. That was unacceptable, but there was, as always, a precisely prescribed traditional remedy to this difficulty. The proper course was to close - under stealth, naturally - then to spring from concealment.
Being a member of the species that she was, the prospect was enormously satisfying to Fecund Enjoyment, in the same way that the contemplation of good art was. Ambush was her middle name. Fecund Ambush Enjoyment. Mother had been so imaginative. And tasty, too.
Sucking-of-juices-while-the-prey-wriggles-amusingly (the ship's name was a single word in Yradrinic) slid through the web of space. The stalk took hours. The quarry kept eluding close approach, changing vectors and speeds in the most annoyingly random fashion. At last she resolved a chord of the course changes that seemed to cover all possibilities. In a short while it would be possible to drop the stealth and leap out of concealment, but Fecund was by now dissatisfied. The prey had evaded and delayed her, which was intolerable, but it was bad art as well. It lacked elegance.
Naturally, all such slights must be repaired, and Fecund's hurt feelings must be soothed. That was invariable, a given. She must personally remonstrate with it for its lack of co-operation. A little research was necessary to establish the best method, and Fecund again consulted her computer.
It would appear that species with internal structural members usually did not regrow limbs, which was all the more provoking of them, so to deny her the fun of repeatedly plucking them. Possibly something involving heat or judicious fracture of its structural members might inspire it to hilarious antics. She hoped there might be more than one of them - one often had to experiment to maximise the effect. Possibly it might have young, or mates. She consulted the computer about that, too, and what she found disgusted her.
Fecund was academically aware that some of the more outré forms of life attempted to solve the eternal puzzles of evolution in radically different and less sensible ways. Of course such solutions were poor ones. How could a species possibly evolve without competition between its individuals producing maximum selection pressure? Nevertheless, it seemed that members of some endoskeletal species actually co-operated. Fecund found the idea left a nasty taste in the mouth, or possibly that might have been the husband - she wondered who he'd been eating.
The more she investigated, the worse it got. The computer said that it was quite likely that the life form in that craft actually protected its young - even from each other. This apparently proceeded from its low fertility, another socially revolting trait. Because it produced few young, each one had to be carefully nurtured. They needed constant care, and that meant in turn that the efforts of both parents were required, or of even more adults working in co-operation. Fecund read, with mounting incredulity, that members of species with these characteristics therefore often formed pair-bonds with their mates as well.
Fecund's reaction to this extreme perversion could only be disgust, then anticipation. If these repulsive facts were facts, and if the prey had indeed brought its litter and mate with it, what fun to start with them! How better to demonstrate the superiority of the Yradrinic way?
It was always so fulfilling when ethical precept matched personal inclination. It invariably happened that way, but it was satisfying nevertheless - a perfect example of morality in action.
She consulted a timepiece and performed some calculations. Naturally, it was now unacceptable that her missiles should simply destroy the alien vessel. That had never been her intention, anyway. After all, she was making a living in the simple, natural, morally superior way of her species: by waiting to rush out and snap up passing prey.
In this case, however, her irritation and moral outrage drove her to take even more care than usual. She must compensate for the messy inelegance of the stalk and the unworthy nature of the prey by using only the most refined and precise means to disable the vessel, so to enact in full the proper and traditional rites on its occupants. She owed that much to herself and her species. And that in turn meant getting close. Soon, though, she would be close enough.
"Uh-oh." Pad Alvarez's book disappeared, and was replaced with the hud. That, of course, meant trouble. At almost the same moment, Tingrat's voice sounded in his ear.
"What?" asked Tingrat.
"Don't know yet." Alvarez did know, of course, that it was something and that it was trouble, but Tingrat knew that too. Tingrat was actually saying something like: "Tell me what you know that I don't."
It took seven furious seconds to get to the point where Alvarez had something like that to tell her. Then: "Yeah. It's a spider. Can't get a read on the type, but there's nothing else it could be, with that level of passive stealth and ECM." The approximate bearing, range and closure rate fed direct to Tingrat's hud at the helm.
"Huh," said Tingrat. "Be another fifteen minutes at least. Going to evasion pattern Lima. It'll look like another random shift. Can you do anything unobtrusive?"
"Not much. I'm stepping down the hull index. It'll look like we've turned a less reflective surface to it, but with that thing's sensor suite, I reckon it's got a paint of the hull anyway by now."
"Concur. You hear, Flea?"
"Yoh." Flea woke up fast. "Taking down the main drive now, powering up the donkey engine. Fifteen minutes, you said, Ting?"
"Affirm. It's coming in pretty slow and stealthy."
"Should have enough on the plates for normal manoeuvres for twice that long. After that we'll need the main drive again to keep up objective velocity."
"I hear you. Do it, and make the changeover smooth. I'm betting it'll spot the switch if we leave it any longer."
Not for the first time, Alvarez found himself regretting that the weapon systems of Syrex were so markedly inferior to what would be standard equipment for a spider. But the spiders had been in space for so long they'd evolved to suit it, and they'd been predators at a time when human beings were just a gleam in a lobe-fin's eye.
For that matter, he regretted having to sit around in a point-five G field, which weakened him. Having to exercise in an old-fashioned centrifuge wasn't the same as having a proper field, though of course the centrifuge wasn't detectable as a grav anomaly. Alvarez, like most rim crew, came from a heavy-G planet. Cascador, in his case, one-point-seven Gs. Genetic modification had made him squat and powerful, and it had done things to his circulatory system and heart. He was comfortable at five times the G that obtained inside Syrex's hull, and, more importantly, he could pull twenty, thirty times as much without blacking out.
That was why he was there, of course.
He eyed the fuzzy blip on the hud. They'd done what they could to fool the spider into thinking they were a fly. Now they could only wait. Of course they were in range of the spider's weapons. It could blow them to plasma any time, but if the usual situation applied, it would close even after it was sure of a killing shot, disable them, then swarm over them and paralyse them. That was what spiders did. At least it was what they had always done - or tried to do - when confronted with this situation before.
Alvarez was aware, in the back of his mind, that sooner or later that would change. Maybe they were set in their ways, but spiders weren't stupid. Nobody who'd seen their tech thought that. He hoped this wouldn't be the one to think outside the box.
It was very close now, and it had increased its stealth. But the grav passives were still painting it, if just barely. Spiders liked about point two G, fairly easy to conceal. If it hadn't been for this latest set of upgrades, he wouldn't be seeing it at all, and he would know nothing before missile separation. That would make the margin very, very thin indeed. Those upgrades were a proof, and a comfort. Humanity was edging up. Maybe, one day, the gap would close. Alvarez hoped it would happen before the spiders worked out that they were being blindsided.
It would launch any minute now, and Alvarez suppressed a wish to launch missiles himself. He didn't have any. One of the new type-twelves would reach it now, but it would be useless, of course. Even a twelve would get there with its drive nearly dead and no chance of avoiding the countermissiles. Spider missiles were much better than anything humanity could build… yet. Far worse, any launch would tell the spider that they could see it, and that would only cause the spiders to tweak their stealth and rethink their approach. They never seemed to run out of tricks with stealth. But every spider successfully suckered told humanity a little more - about missiles, and drives, and stealth.
Closer. Any time now.
Fecund was certainly going to remonstrate very severely with the alien. It was following an evasion pattern which it changed randomly, and this last change had been a particularly awkward one. It was difficult for Fecund's computers to get a good solution for an attack of the precision required.
All the same, it wouldn't be long now. Fecund checked her latest map of the alien hull and found it tolerably detailed. There were no missile bays and no beam weapons bar a silly little laser or two. Wriggles-amusingly would hardly be scratched by anything so feeble. Best of all, the alien was showing no signs of fright. Oh, certainly it was using an evasion pattern, and an annoying one at that - but many aliens did that, hoping thus to avoid theYradrinic. Clearly it had not detected her.
Ah. The computer was telling her that she was now in range for an assured hit. The missile she would use would be surgically precise, with a fusion head that powered an x-ray laser to destroy the prey's drive. Which, of course, her sensors were painting clearly now, from its energy signature. Not as big a signature as the hull volume might imply, but perhaps it was better shielded than you'd think. Since any craft relied on its drive for all power, the attack would paralyse the prey completely, in the elegant, ancient manner. Looking back over her approach vectors, Fecund felt grudging artistic satisfaction. Not, mind you, that the object had been worthy.
It was clear that the design of that craft was primitive. Its drive was in a pod, almost an outrigger, as if the aliens didn't trust their own fusion technology. Fecund clicked her mandibles again. That only made it an easier target, of course. And it was practically unarmed.
She confirmed the program, and hastened to the attack craft. Of course, the proprieties demanded that she perform the traditional rites in person. She must pounce on them; nothing else would do. It was proper, it was perennial, it was essentially and necessarily right. Fecund felt a profound sense of the eternal verities that had brought the Yradrinic to the stars, of the timelessness of the poetry that she would make with the prey, the endless dance in which each move was ordained and prescribed and immutable. Such things did not, could not ever change. That precision, that certainty of action, was part of the very being of the Yradrinic, and awe came over Fecund as she contemplated it - she had always been inclined to be devout.
Ah. Even as she sealed the attack craft and secured herself, the missile was separating. It was one of the new types, too, a design only six thousand years old. The aliens would have mere seconds to react.
"Missile separation! Accel over a thousand gravities. Got to be a laser head. Too goddam fast for anything bigger. Median attack range in twelve seconds, mark."
"I'll twitch the ship in five seconds, about when we might notice it."
"Second separation. Slower and bigger. It's a boarding craft."
Tingrat didn't bother to reply. The ship lurched, right on cue, and the incoming missile corrected as smooth as a shark. One second. Two.
Nobody actually saw the detonation and the stab of coherent EMS, of course. Data on both arrived together, as the external pod shattered like an egg. At the same moment Flea cut power from the plates. Syrex straight-lined, her accel dropping instantly to zero as she transited to equivalent n-space velocity like falling into an abyss. Of course her internal grav field cut out simultaneously, and all her contents went into free-fall. Exactly as you'd expect for a ship that had just lost all power. Alvarez swallowed, but he retained his lunch.
The spider mothership dropped into n-space, too, and the boarding craft also transited and accelerated madly on an intercept, undoubtedly hitting its max - which was twenty-eight Gs and a touch. Even now, Alvarez dared not go active. He wasn't supposed to have power for it. But the passives painted it quite well, at that sort of accel differential. The boarding craft was maintaining an internal field at point two G, which meant that it contained the spider herself. Right on the profile, so far.
"Standing by," said Flea in his ear, and also in Tingrat's. He was whispering, as if the spider could hear him, across the vacuum.
Wait. Wait. The boarding craft locked them up, and Alvarez authorised one of the hull lasers to fire on its stored power. As he expected, a spit of coherent light from the alien took it out before the circuit could warm.
More seconds. Then a muffled thud as the boarding craft attached itself to the hull.
"Picked a hatch-cover all right. It's sitting right over twenty. You got it lined up, Flea?"
"Wait one… Affirm. Five seconds to peak."
A high-pitched vibration. The craft had exuded a silk boarding tube and established an umbilical connection. In three more seconds it had breached the hull, venting pressure to vacuum.
"On my mark, then," muttered Tingrat. The spider might have been able to hear her, now. "Right about … right about … Now! Hit it!"
The main drive lit and surged, rapidly cycling up to max. Tingrat watched the power peak, settled herself into the formfitting recliner, and closed the relay. Every erg that Syrex could generate surged into her grav coils.
Even on the inner decks the accel shot up to sixteen or twenty Gs. The crew felt the weight drag their faces into rictus as they struggled to breathe; but that was trivial. There'd been time to align the field. On the outside of the hull by hatch twenty the acceleration reached one hundred and forty-three G when it peaked, or roughly five times the max that the boarding craft had been observed to pull. Even so, it might have had the spare capacity to damp it out. Spider gravitics were as far ahead as everything else they had. That was why Tingrat had waited until the spider was already outside its boarding craft. It would be in an armoured suit, of course, but no suit, not even a spider's, had that much redundant power.
The spider was visible in the outside monitor as a dark blob through the silk of her boarding tube. There was a moment when she paused in consternation as she felt the vibration of the alien hull. That wasn't supposed to be possible. The alien didn't have a drive. She'd destroyed it. Another tenth of a second, and she might have managed to scuttle back. As it was, the ship came down on her like the hammer of God.
"Nope," muttered Tingrat. "It doesn't like me."
She had worked through a layer of the protocols surrounding the spider ship's brain, but there was more. It was apparently requesting codes she didn't know. Her cryptanalysis was making some progress, but…
"Target's grav just went down," said Alvarez, urgently.
"Aw, crap!" Seven seconds later a white rose bloomed in the stark black of space. The monitors stepped down automatically. A sleet of particles swept past, or were absorbed or reflected from the hull.
They watched as fifty million dollars in prize money turned itself into a plasma cloud that swelled, then faded. The sight demanded a certain reverent silence, and it was nearly a minute before anyone spoke.
"Well, at least we still got the attack craft." Flea tried to be consoling. "Lot of data. Four million right there."
"And a chunk of spider code. Something more for the cryptanalysts to bite on. And the spider herself, of course." Tingrat turned away, and began downloading figures to the helm.
"In a bucket, yeah. Not much use in that." Alvarez shook his head. "They'll figure it out, one day, you know. The spiders will, I mean."
"Probably." Tingrat approved the solution. "Ready with main drive, Flea?"
"Yo. Winding up now."
"I wonder what we'll do then."
"I don't know," said Tingrat, vaguely. "We'll do what we always did before, I guess. Something different."
This story originally appeared in Oceans of the Mind.Follow
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